A Dance In Two Parts – 1

Imagine the unthinkable: Imagine that we human beings didn’t have to work for a living. Imagine that everything we needed to prosper in life was already there for us, like Eden. Imagine a world without money where we could pay for whatever we needed with only a smile. I wonder, what would we do with all the “free time” we had?  How many of us would decide to become policemen or to sell insurance?

If we didn’t have to work, I imagine that we would sleep a lot; we’d putter in the garden, goof off with the kids, play tennis and golf, enjoy long lunches, and do fun stuff, like fishing and playing cards. We’d weave and knit beautiful things and tell stories to each other. And no matter what, we’d play music and sing and we’d dance.

Pieter Bruegel – Wedding Dance – Oil/ wood – c. 1550

People love to dance; it’s a part of every culture on Earth. I imagine that the inclination to dance, like the urge to sing, or to make marks with colors, is a fundamental circuit in the hard-wiring of human beings in general. The forms of dancing can be fixed and ritualistic or fluid and improvisational, and, it seems, dancing can be anything in-between. Taking inspiration from Bruegel and other artists, like Renoir and Anders Zorn, I wanted to attenpt a painting of ordinary people dancing, nothing formal, just people enjoying music, and each other. I got the chance several years ago when Nevada County, where I live, constructed a new administrative center and budgeted a sum of money to decorate the building.

The Board of Supervisors voted down my first proposal of couples dancing at the Nevada County Fair. So I went back to work on the drawings, revising the theme. A year later I presented this sketch to the Board and this time they approved the proposal.

Sketch for A Dance at the Fair – Colored pencils on paper – 10 x 21 inches

It took more months of work than I care to count to complete the painting. Here’s a photo of the the result:

A Dance at the Fair – Oil/canvas – 30 x 60 inches

Aside from working out difficulties in proportions, color and perspective, the basic problem for realist painters is the depiction of light and space. In the case of these dancers, I wanted to show them as individuals, or rather, as couples. But I also wanted to give them room to move around, and also to place them in the context of trees, buildings and spectators on a sunny afternoon in late Summer. In case you might be interested, here’s a diagram of how I arranged the dancers in space, with the red line indicating how I wanted the viewers’ gaze to move in and out from background to middle ground to foreground, et cetera.

Although the scene seems natural, none of the couples were dancing at the same time. I mean that the composition is artificial, a composite of many sketches and photos, gathered over three or four years, that I arranged to look natural.

At any rate, the Board was happy with the painting, and after I got paid, I was happy too. The painting was installed in the county adminstration building, where it still lives, so you’d think that this would be the end of the story. Not quite.

After the painting was accepted, I left for Europe and spent a few months drawing and painting in Spain. When I returned to my studio, the answering machine was overflowing. All of the messages were routine, except for one. A male voice with a menacing tone growled at me, “Hey, are you the guy that did that painting that’s in the county building? The people dancing? Well, I got something to tell you. You call me, you hear?”

He left a number and also a feeling of dread. I thought, “Who is this guy and why is he mad at me? Did I paint him dancing with somebody else’s wife? This isn’t the homecoming I expected.”

I waited until the following day to phone the number.

Next week in part 2 of this post I’ll tell you what happend.

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